Ireland has 4 living former Taoisigh – John Bruton, Bertie Ahern, Brian Cowen, and Enda Kenny. Last week it was revealed that the Government will spend €300,000 annually to provide them with various perks – a secretary, a car, VIP passage through airports, and that sort of thing. This has generated considerable public anger. It works out at about €75,000 per year in benefits per man.
One of the most enduring facts about politics is that the average voter is entirely unable to distinguish – through no real fault of their own – the difference between big numbers, and small numbers, when it comes to Government spending. The result of this – aided and abetted, often, by the media, is that public anger tends to focus on the small, really unimportant things, and not on the larger problems, the ones that really matter.
It is in that context that we should consider the Taoiseach’s decision to make available to his predecessors some new perks – mainly a secretary and a car and driver – that will cost the public, if all the living former Taoisigh take it up, €300,000 per year.
To put that number in context, the cost to the taxpayer will be less than 1/5767th of the national children’s hospital. Or about 1/62000th of what we spend on the health service every year:
“LEO VARADKAR PERSONALLY signed off on a plan to give former Taoisigh special supports – including VIP airport facilities, increased use of state cars, and the salary of a full-time secretary – just four months after he took office.
Varadkar was told the decision would cost up to €300,000 a year if all Taoisigh took advantage of the full suite of entitlements.
Former Taoisigh include Enda Kenny, Bertie Ahern, Brian Cowen and John Bruton.
The move took place in October 2017 while Varadkar had only taken up office in June.
The document – obtained under FOI – explained the system of supports for former Taoisigh had been introduced in August 2001 but discontinued in March of 2012.
“It would seem reasonable that a former Taoiseach should have access to supports (administrative and otherwise) to support him/her carrying out aspects of work associated with his/her former role which remain after [their] period in office has ceased,” it said.
The memo said that the estimated cost of reintroducing the scheme would be “in the region of €300k” if all ex-Taoisigh availed of it.”
Why is it that the public get so more annoyed about relatively tiny numbers than they do about truly enormous figures? Is it because we can all imagine having €300,000 and understand exactly what it could buy, whereas few of us can comprehend how much money €1.73billion, the cost of the Children’s Hospital, actually is?
Or is it that we’re less annoyed at the waste of money, even if it is truly vast, if we cannot connect it in our own minds to someone else getting that money into their pockets?
Either way, the reaction to this particular story has surprised me. It is true that in a republic, all citizens, even current or former office holders, are equal. It’s also true that former Taoisigh already have generous pensions, and the capacity to make a good deal of money making speeches, or sitting on corporate boards. Most of them can, you would imagine, afford their own car and secretary, should they desire either one. So why is the taxpayer paying for it?
On the other hand, we’re an independent country and part of being an independent country is having a sense of national pride, and dignity. Ex-Taoisigh, like Bertie Ahern, and Enda Kenny, and John Bruton, are all people who, in their way, did the state some service, and continue to represent us overseas. When they speak at an event in London or New York, they’re continuing in some way to represent the country, even though they no longer do so formally. Most of them continue to undertake a heavy programme of speaking engagements or meetings, and usually, whether they like it or not, they’re conducting some ambassadorial role for the country.
Is €300,000 of our money to give them a secretary and some transport really too much? Put it this way: To fund just one national broadband plan with this money, Ireland would need to have about 66,000 living former Taoiseachs.
We have much bigger problems to worry about. This amount of money is miniscule in comparison to what the Government spends every day, let alone every year.